Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game is based on real life events of Molly Bloom, who is well played by Jessica Chastain, and her memoir Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker. Bloom was investigated by the FBI for her involvement in underground poker games in Los Angeles then New York for Hollywood celebrities, athletes, business tycoons, and eventually the Russian mob beginning in the late 2000s.
Like some of the portrayed poker players, this crime drama goes “all in, all the time” as Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball, TV’s The West Wing) and his crew build on an initial documentary film-type style as audiences learn of Molly’s background as a world class skier then her high stakes poker experiences.
This world is not too detailed while still informing and even educating with references and examples of poker terms like usury, juice, rake, whales, the nuts, floor call and staking as Molly creates her own “eco system” with clever recruitment, hard work and other unique tactics. Molly also wisely protects her interests, especially in a sequence involving a “trust fund kid and counterfeit chips (a visual would have been nice here).
Audiences see authentic portrayals of Molly’s previous life experiences (flashbacks, etc.) thanks to Piper Howell who portrays the 7-year old Molly and especially Samantha Isler as Molly in her teenage years. It’s great casting and the quality performances keep the film progressing with minimal interruption.
Filmmakers focus in on the important parts and jettison the unneeded details (e.g. the person she briefly lived with when she first moved to L.A.). As Molly fights to succeed in a man’s world, she displays an incredible knack for mastering and exploiting various systems in several business/entrepreneurial fields (restaurants, real estate, etc.). “I was raised to be a champion,” she says. Molly uses her words to sway, convince and just outwit anyone she encounters as audiences see how the overall game of poker is detrimental, unattractive and damaging when greed is applied.
The main challenge of any crime film is getting the audience to relate to or even like the criminals…or, in this case, alleged criminals. Molly becomes an instantly credible voice even though she’s looking at federal charges because of one important element – fairness. Audiences can see what’s happening to her on multiple fronts is and was not fair. She endured every conceivable hardship where parties tried to take away her livelihood, her freedom, her money, her control, her profession, identity, and almost, most importantly, her life.
Audiences see how Molly’s perceived by others including the media with Molly as she reacts to the good and mostly bad. Even in the poker game business, she treats others fairly as she’s severely mistreated and falsely (and inaccurately) accused of using the same tactics that many others do. “You have no bargaining power here,” she’s told by her boss who unfairly takes away her salary because of his jealousy of her “tip” earnings at the poker games.
There are too many gems to fit into this fine film as Sorkin’s quick-fire methods and timing work well. For example, the dialogue-only reference from Molly about making a card game playlist as she prepares her first poker game goes slow enough to ingest the reference then waits enough to enjoy it before cutting away.
I would have liked to see more about Molly’s law school experiences, but the poker experiences are plenty to digest through the two-hour and 20 minute running time. She always fights for herself and even absorbs some of the bad blows for others to protect them… thankfully, she has a few good men who defend her along the way.
Idris Elba plays the criminal defensive lawyer Charlie Jaffey who assists Molly in her federal case. Their humorous, yet intelligent dialogue and genuine moments (e.g. “switch me seats,” “Cinemax” reference, etc.) drives the story well. Sorkin includes an important establishing shot featuring Molly’s 5’ 4” size compared to the tall, commanding Charlie as they walk down a hallway together. Legal terms like forensic imaging balance with personal elements like interactions with Charlie’s daughter, played by newcomer Whitney Peak.
Kevin Costner plays Molly’s dad Larry, a clinical psychologist and distinguished professor. Costner plays the role perfectly as a demanding, but nurturing father. He sees being tired as a weakness and does not take too much stock in what others have to say, including Molly. His answers become especially prominent in an exterior sequence with Larry and Molly that is the film’s best sequence where Larry’s words carry large weight just like Molly’s.
Michael Cera plays Player X. He’s based on a real-life celebrity or a composite and loves “destroying [the] lives” of his fellow players. Bill Camp has a great role as an experienced poker player named Harlan Eustice, one of the few players at the game with a finite amount of income.
Other plot players include Brad, played by Brian d’Arcy James, Douglas Downey, played by Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, TV’s The IT Crowd), real estate agent Dean Keith, played by Jeremy Strong (The Big Short) and Judge Foxman, played by Graham Greene. O’Dowd’s performance is particularly effective as he represents the personal emotions (hidden and shown) behind these poker games. Angela Gots (TV’s Madam Secretary) plays an experienced card dealer named B while Molly’s mother Charlene is played by Claire Rankin. Audiences also see Molly’s brothers Jeremy and Jordan who mainly appear to establish their impressive achievement within this very talented family.
Filmmakers keep their comprehensive focus on her character development and provide great gems throughout the plot. For example, a young Molly reluctantly learns to use her skis to go back up the hill instead of taking them off and carrying them back up. They show how Molly relates to the world (e.g. her interest in Matthew Robinson who she mentions in a visual reference sequence) while revealing her emotional side beneath her steely, yet necessary defenses (e.g. how a genuine conversation from one of the poker players touched her).
Sorkin includes several of Molly’s references throughout including (e.g. a Winston Churchill quote, etc.) while incorporating other characters with Molly in references to The Crucible and others. He wisely uses a quick touch on interesting references that don’t deeply development Molly’s character or progress the plot (e.g. Molly’s ban from entering Canada).
As a director, Sorkin does a great job. He has experienced filmmakers on the set to help him (e.g. Costner). He shoots and structures shots at the dialogue’s pace with great timing. He sparingly uses enhancing graphics to explain poker only at a moment where the personal stakes are very high. He lets audiences see the prices at a vending stand, so they can feel the character’s heartbreak of not having enough money for basic needs. He leaves audiences with a memorable final image at the end.
Sorkin and his filmmaking crew make another good decision by not showing the law enforcement raids on the game just on Molly. She remains the focus throughout this highly engaging film. The most noticeable bad edit occurs in an interior sequence in Charlie’s office where a side shot oddly transitions to an odd angled shot where the angle of rotation uncomfortably jolts the viewing a bit.
Featured songs include “C’est si bon” sung by Eartha Kitt and “Say Hello 2 Heaven” sung by Temple of the Dog, which helps enhance the time period depicted during its placement. The solid musical score by British composer Daniel Pemberton hits a special highlight when a character decides to provide legal help to Molly.
Highly recommended (***1/2 out of four stars) and rated R for language, drug content and some violence.